If anyone thought that Tuesday’s chemical attack by Syrian President Bashar Assad’s army against civilians in Idlib was evidence of a rift or crisis between Assad and Russia, a telephone call Thursday between Russian President Vladimir Putin and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu clarified Moscow’s position on the Syrian issue.
Putin not only refrained from condemning the Syrian army’s barbaric act, but also reprimanded Netanyahu for having accused Damascus of being behind it. The day before, the Russians came up with an original and interesting explanation for the attack: The Syrian aircraft had attacked a warehouse containing non-conventional weapons that were in the rebels’ possession.
If one conclusion can be drawn from Moscow’s behavior in this regard, it is that Israel is headed for a hard time with Russia when it comes to dealing with Hezbollah, Iran, and, of course, Assad. And it’s not guaranteed to get any easier in the wake of US President Donald Trump’s overnight Thursday-Friday retaliatory strike at the Syrian airbase from which the chemical attack was launched.
The Russians picked sides long ago, and the facts speak for themselves: The Russian air force is providing extraordinary protection not only to Assad’s army, but also to Hezbollah and the Iranian Revolutionary Guards who are fighting alongside him. Russian combat soldiers have been seen fighting beside Hezbollah soldiers in Syria and together with troops from Assad’s army.
In addition, there is a permanent Russian presence in the waters of the Mediterranean Sea, thanks to a port that was built in Tartus with Assad’s approval.
Moscow’s full backing for the Shi’ite axis does have some advantages: Following a March 17 Israeli attack on a Hezbollah weapons convoy, during which Syria fired anti-aircraft missiles at the departing Israeli planes, Hezbollah chose to complain to Russia about the act rather than respond militarily.
Hezbollah, it has since been established, contacted Moscow via Damascus, demanding that pressure be put on Israel to stop its attacks on Hezbollah’s installations and arms convoys, since this “harmed Russian and Syrian interests.” As a reminder of what we are talking about: The vicious terrorist organization that brought suicide attacks to the Middle East, and fought a bitter war against Israel in 2006, chose to make a complaint to the Russian kindergarten teacher because one of the other pupils hit it too hard.
Nonetheless, Israel has several causes for concern as things heat up across the northern border. Russia has been doing everything possible to entrench Assad’s power, whatever the price or the means may be. It has become increasingly difficult to distinguish between Assad, Hezbollah and Iran in the Syrian theater of war. They are working in full coordination, and Russia is unlikely to give Israel too much leeway as Jerusalem attempts to prevent Iran from establishing itself in Syria alongside Hezbollah.
We now wait to see how Trump’s resort to force will impact Putin’s calculations.